You Don’t Have to Endure Insomnia During Cancer Treatment

Expert advice on combating sleepless nights

Senior Woman Having Difficulty In Sleeping In Bed With Husband

Contributor: Jamie Schwachter, BSN, MSN, NP-C

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Everyone experiences trouble falling or staying asleep at one time or another. But if you’re undergoing treatment for cancer, you may have special needs where sleeping is concerned.

The drugs used for chemotherapy can cause you to feel tired or fatigued. So you may take naps or sleep during the day, which can lead to difficulty falling or staying asleep at night.

Also, some medications that you may take to combat the side effects of chemotherapy can contribute to sleep problems. For example, some anti-nausea medications may cause drowsiness. Other medications, such as steroids, can make you feel energized and hinder your sleep.

Sometimes insomnia – the inability to fall or stay asleep – can be caused by the stress and tension of a receiving a cancer diagnosis and going through treatment.

Ponder the possible causes

If you’re unable to fall or stay asleep for more than a few days, carefully consider what may be at the root of the problem. Then talk with your health care team for solutions. They also can help you to identify what might be keeping you from a good night’s sleep. Or in talking with you, your health care team might identify other causes that you may have missed, such as consuming caffeine too late in the day.

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If you think your medications are causing sleep problems, be sure to discuss this with your health care provider. It’s important to never change anything regarding your medications without checking with them first.

One helpful step you can take before talking with your health care team is to keep a sleep diary for a week or so in which you chart the times you are asleep and awake, as well as what you think may be contributing to your insomnia.

Having this kind of detailed information can be of great help in determining the cause of your wakefulness. There may be different causes on different days that, combined, are keeping you wide-eyed at night.

Tips to help you sleep

Here are some tips that can help you fall asleep or sleep better:

  • Do not eat, exercise or look at your computer or mobile device in the last two hours before bedtime. Instead, choose an activity that relaxes you: Listen to soothing music, read or work on a quiet hobby such as knitting or do a crossword puzzle.
  • Make your bedroom conducive to sleep. Keep the room dark, quiet and cool.
  • Use your bed for sleeping or intimacy only, not for watching TV or reading.
  • Maintain a sleep routine by going to bed and waking up at the same time.
  • Limit your daytime naps to an hour or less.
  • If you are able, try some mild to moderate physical activity, such as a 20-minute walk, during the day.
  • Work to reduce or eliminate your caffeine consumption and avoid caffeine in the evening.
  • Distract your mind from active thoughts that are keeping you awake by counting sheep. The classic folk remedy works, research shows. You also can focus on a ticking clock or some other neutral sound or image.
  • Try tightening, then completely relaxing, various muscle groups to relieve tension in your body.

If your sleep problems are due to worries about your cancer or if pain is affecting your sleep, talk with your health care team. They can adjust your medications or make suggestions that can help you to cope, such as becoming involved with a support group.

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Cancer Answer Nurses

Jamie Schwachter, BSN, MSN, NP-C and Josette Snyder, RN, MSN, AOCN are Advanced Practice Nurses for Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute’s Cancer Answer Line.
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